John O'Malley, S.J., honored at Harvard

Cambridge, Mass.—This week is graduation week at Harvard, with the actual Commencement Ceremony today May 26. But on each lead-up day there have been small ceremonies for various alumni/ae classes, pre-graduation gatherings for individual programs, and other events too; the campus is alive and festive. Yesterday, we at the Divinity School held our commencement interfaith service, which features readings from sacred scriptures, poetry and song, from all the religious traditions represented in the graduating class. Included in this, it was very nice to see displayed several of the images produced by the Catholic artist Corita Kent, and to hear Maggie Krueger, one of students graduating in the MDiv program, read for the gathered graduates and their families, faculty and staff, a portion of Daniel Berrigan, S.J.’s famous meditation on bread: “When I hear bread breaking I see something else; it seems almost as though God never meant us to do anything else. So beautiful a sound, the crust breaks up like manna and falls all over everything, and then we eat; bread gets inside humans.” 

But the highlight of the day for me occurred when the university’s Alumni/Alumnae Association presented one of its prestigious Centennial Medals to the respected and beloved Jesuit historian, John O’Malley, S.J. John, as you will know, is a scholar and teacher and writer on the beginnings of the Jesuits, on the Council of Trent and Vatican II, and on a host of topics related to Italian Renaissance intellectual history. John was honored on May 25 along with three others distinguished scholars: the economist of education Cecilia Rouse, the mathematician David Mumford, and the historian-political theorist, Francis Fukuyama, all of whom, like John, earned their doctorates at Harvard. (You can read more about them here.)

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The full text of the citation will surely be online soon, but I cannot resist quoting from it. Near its start, we hear this tribute to John, in part expressed in the words of Mark Massa, S.J., himself a distinguished historian:

His religious dedication and passion for the study of history have encouraged countless others to follow in his footsteps. “John is like a pied piper,” says Mark Massa, Th.D. ’87, professor of church history and dean of the Boston College School of Theology and Ministry, who studied history with O’Malley both as an undergraduate and as a graduate student. “A lot of my friends were inspired to go into history because of John’s ability to make it interesting, relevant, alive. He connected all the dots for us. William Faulkner once said that the past is not really dead, in fact it’s not even past—and I think John has the ability to make us see how that is true.

James Hankins, professor of history at Harvard, is quoted to highlight how John is one of those creative historians who has thought beyond the traditional divides of Catholic and Protestant, in order to show how the various Christian churches have always been interacting, and thus need to be studied together: “His basic insight has been to see the history of religion as moving pari passu in Catholic and Protestant countries, and to see that all parties are sharing the same concerns. They’re all reformers, but following different paths.”

Later in the citation, I was happy to be quoted myself:

“John is a solid and respected historian whose research has shed new light on the Catholic Church as it has grown and changed over the past few hundred years,” says Francis Clooney, Parkman Professor of Divinity and Professor of Comparative Theology at Harvard Divinity School. “He has made that history accessible and relevant to new generations of students, scholars, and leaders. In all this, John integrates intellectual and professional excellence with the sincerity and simplicity of a priestly vocation lived out in 70 years of religious life. His impeccable scholarship has always been for the sake of helping others, not for his own reputation or advancement.”

This was a great and well-deserved day for John and the friends and family members who gathered—and, I hope you will agree, a very welcome day for the Society of Jesus, to see one of its senior members honored as scholar, as teacher and as priest. As the citation puts it: “Professor and priest, historian and Jesuit, John O’Malley is that rare scholar who has emerged as both an academic and spiritual leader.” Congratulations, John!

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